Give credit where it’s due: This was Barriga’s idea. But Staff Sergeant Al Barriga was a cartoonist; he just didn’t have the creative writing chops. Besides, even with over 20 years in uniform, there’s no way he could have pulled it off on his own.
Like Dirty Harry says, a man’s gotta know his limitations.
So Barriga came to me – his boss.
It was 1968, we were stationed in South Korea, and we were bored out of our tiny minds. “We” was me, the Seventh Infantry Division’s public information officer, Barriga, and the five other soldiers who worked for me.
Not that we had nothing to do. We put out The Bayonet, the division’s weekly newspaper. While this was widely ignored as Army propaganda — you can’t fool the troops — we still tried to make it as interesting as possible. We also pulled field duty, maintained our equipment, froze our butts off and suffered the same lack of creature comfort as everyone else at Camp Casey. And like every other red-blooded American soldier, we endured a lack of off-duty attractions beyond those offered by the venereal disease distribution center outside our gates, better known as the village of Tongduchon.
While working in a warm office is way better than dragging a rifle and combat gear up and down frozen mountains or through icky, sticky rice paddies, we were bored with putting out a newspaper that nobody read, filled with “news” that everybody either already knew or didn’t care about.
The single exception was sports. Guys liked to read about intramural competition. There were bragging rights in sharing a Quonset hut with a member of a championship team.
But now it was late winter. Football was long over. Basketball was finished. We had no hockey rink and it would be months before baseball. Our sports page dwindled to almost nothing; troops got their only sports fix from Stars & Stripes, the semi-official Department of Defense daily, which along with world and national news, carried pro and college scores and wire service features.
Then Barriga thought of a way to fill our sports page.
With assistance from the whole office, he invented a sport. Barriga’s parents were from Peru. His ancestors, he firmly believed, were Incas. So we dubbed it “grumaché” and said it was the “Sport of Inca Kings.”
We began by reporting the results of the first round of the [mythical] Mayta Cup, the [mythical] international grumaché tournament held in Cuzco, Peru, and named for the Inca athlete king, Mayta Cápac.
There really was a Mayta Cápac — 750 years ago. Sports-wise, nothing much has happened in southern Peru since 1533, when Pizarro sacked and looted Cuzco.
We began with the assumption that none of our readers spoke Quechua, the native language of the Central Andes. Not that Barriga did, either, but he knew a smattering. To color our reports, we sprinkled game highlights with whatever words and phrases he could recall. For example, we called the grumaché field rit'i qewa, which means snow-covered grass. [Maybe]. Other grumaché terms were mostly words used by Barriga’s dad when he was drinking. Or by his mom when his dad drank too much.
In reporting a baseball game, no contemporary sportswriter would explain stuff like “strikeout,” “infield fly rule” or “no-hitter.” So while we used assorted grumaché terms, we rarely explained them. Nor did we describe the object of the game or the field it was played on, except in passing or with Quechua words. And of course, we made up rules and changed them as we went along.
Think about what it would be like to read an account of a hockey game if you’d never seen one, and didn’t know the rules or even what equipment players used — that was the fun of it, knowing that our readers would be scratching their heads and for the first time talking about something they read in our paper.
Not until our report of the third round of the semi-finals did we let slip that grumaché was played on a sunken hexagonal field about half the size of a basketball court. There was a simi rumi [stone mouth or goal hole] in each of the six sides, alternately defended by two opposing teams. The idea was to throw, kick or stuff a rumi pupu into an opponent’s simi rumi. The rumi pupu could be thrown or bounced but never carried or rolled; a rumi pupu, we eventually mentioned, was a 15-pound, leather-wrapped stone.
All these game details, and others, were slipped into stories, a few at a time in no particular order. Eventually, discerning readers understood why, while fielding only seven men, a [mythical] squad needed 30 players. And why so many players suffered [mythical] bruises and serious [mythical] hand, head, leg and foot injuries. Except we didn’t say anything about it being mythical.
In our third piece we mentioned in passing that Special Service officials were discussing plans for a [mythical] Seventh Division grumaché tournament.
I should explain that every story we published, as well as every news release, was reviewed by my boss, Major Matero,* the civil affairs officer. But by 10:00 am most mornings Matero had sipped so much bourbon-laced coffee that he would approve anything, including a test piece I submitted reporting that Amelia Earhart was found working as a Tongduchon bar girl.
We had planned four stories, ending with final playoff results from Cuzco, which would get us almost within spittoon range of baseball spring training.
But then came a telex message from Stars & Stripes in Tokyo; I’d forgotten that they were on our distribution list. Stripes editors browsed our pages looking for stories that they could expand or report more widely. The sports editor asked me to send scores and highlights from our grumaché tournament, the Chicha Cup. In Quechua, Chicha [actually] means beer.
Obviously, Stripes was just as desperate for sports news as we were.
So as grumaché disappeared from The Bayonet, weekly tournament roundups appeared every Saturday in Stripes. A million readers from Pearl Harbor to Hong Kong, from Sydney to New Delhi, scratched their heads over the mysteries of grumaché. Twice editors telexed requests for explanation of terms; I ignored these until an irate editor telephoned, then had Barriga create a skeletal grumaché lexicon in faux Quechua.
Desperate to end the hoax without giving ourselves away, we dreamed up a tournament grand finale: A prolonged, scoreless struggle between the 2072nd Radio Research Group and the 9th Ordnance Depot team. These were, of course, nonexistent units. We did have a small Radio Research detachment, but their mission — mining North Korean Army radio traffic for useful intelligence — was classified. Anybody attempting to contact any unit called “radio research” was routed to a counterintelligence officer who scared them off. We sort of had an ordnance outfit, but its men and equipment had deployed to Vietnam, leaving behind a skeleton force. They rarely answered their phone; I suspected that they all hung out in the PX cafeteria drinking coffee.
To tie things up in a bow, we created an exciting finish that we hoped would forestall all further requests for grumaché news: Through four scoreless periods, the Radio Research guys would hold off several clever asnu [donkey] sonqo-suwa [heart-stealer] feints by the Ordnance team. With only minutes before sunset — grumaché play is suspended until daybreak so that qolqe [money] could be erk'eta munay [given affection] — the 2072nd‘s qoyllor [star] songollay [sweetheart] fractured his knee while attempting the difficult munay usa [love louse] maneuver.
With both sides out of ambulatory replacements, the kura [priest] ran onto the field yelling “Soq'oita q'owai,” [“Give me something to drink!”] to halt play. He then declared am urubamba [a plain of snakes, e.g., a draw], whereupon both enraged benches limped onto the rit’i qewa and pelted each other with ukuku wiqsa kuna [bear heads, e.g. worn-out rumi pupu]. After MPs restored order it was decreed that grumaché would no longer be played in the division.
Just as we were ready to ship this masterpiece to Tokyo, Major Matero’s liver failed; he was evacuated Stateside for treatment. Until a replacement arrived, the chief of staff’s sharp-eyed master sergeant, a veteran of decades proofreading personnel orders, would review our press releases for style and punctuation. The chief of staff himself would spot-check content.
There was no way we could sneak even a single rumi pupu past the master sergeant, and the chief of staff would have kittens the first time he encountered a phrase like “Soq'oita q'owai.”
I decided to cancel the last piece.
Then the Stripes editor called from Tokyo. He’d planned to run our final piece as the lead story in Sunday’s sports roundup. When I started making excuses he asked for my boss’s phone number. I faked static interference as an excuse to hang up, but it was plain that he'd call back.
We were screwed.
Barriga was scheduled to rotate Stateside and then retire from the Army; I arranged for him to leave Korea immediately. Cleaning out his desk I found a letter he’d written in which he accepted all responsibility for the hoax. I might have been tempted to keep it, except that it was so full of misspelled words and make-you-cringe grammar that no one would believe that this particular cartoonist could have written anything published in Stripes.
In any case, as senior officer, I alone was responsible. I made an appointment to see the chief of staff, a humorless, no-nonsense full colonel, and confess all. If by some twist of fate I was spared a court-martial, I could expect immediate reassignment to infantry duty on the DMZ.
I began packing.
And then the weather turned unseasonably warm; a forecasted blizzard became an intense, slow-moving rainstorm that washed out roads and bridges from South Korea’s Yellow Sea coast to the Straits of Tsushima.
I telexed the sports editor in Tokyo that due to severe weather, our tournament was cancelled.
I heard no more about grumaché until a few weeks later, while attending a conference in Tokyo. The last day’s events included a tour of Stars & Stripes. As I traversed a top-floor corridor en route to a briefing, a flinty Marine colonel hailed me through his open office door.
The new commanding officer.
“Seventh Division?” he said, eying my shoulder patch.
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Then you’d be the public information officer?”
“Grumaché – that was pure, unadulterated, bull, right?”
“Tell me that it wasn’t a hoax.”
“No sir, I can’t tell you that.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Captain, you just made me $100 richer,” he said. “A bet with my predecessor.”
“Glad to be of service, sir,” I said, choosing my words carefully.
He turned my blood to ice with a withering glance.
“Pull something like that on my watch and I’ll see you in Leavenworth,” he growled.
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is home to the Army’s maximum security prison.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I mean, no, sir.”
“At the Naval Academy I took four years of Spanish,” he said, studying me. “So when I graduated, in 1939, and chose to serve in the Corps, my first duty station was the embassy Marine detachment in Lima, Peru.”
I was beginning to understand.
“Spanish is useful in Peru,” he continued. “But back before the war, the locals mostly spoke Quechua. There isn’t a helluva lot for a young man to do at night in Lima, so the first Quechua every embassy Marine learns is ‘Chicha’ — beer.
“And the first phrase we learned was ‘get me a drink’ —‘Soq'oita q'owai.’
“You really can’t [salty euphemism for excrement] the troops, Captain.”
My heart went down faster than the Titanic.
“Grumaché!” he said, barely able to contain his mirth. “The sport of Inca kings! Really — the very idea!”
Still laughing, he waved me away.
* Deceased 1969
Copyright (c) 2014, Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.